Originally Posted: June 15, 2009
Last Updated: November 2, 2009
Fifty years ago, Olympus came up with the Pen-series of half-frame film cameras. These cameras were well known for their design, compact size, and photo quality, and ended up selling over 17 million units. The most significant of these models was the PenF, released in 1963. The PenF was the world's first and only interchangeable lens half-frame camera, with twenty F. Zuiko lenses to choose from. In case you're wondering why they were called "Pen", Olympus says it was because "it was small enough to carry with you at all times, with the ability to easily record the events of daily life". Sounds good to me.
The Olympus Pen is back in 2009, this time in digital form. The new E-P1 (starting at $750) has a lot of common with the PenF: it's compact, stylish, and there's a growing selection of lenses to choose from. As you probably figured out by now, the E-P1 uses the Micro Four Thirds standard, which is also used by Panasonic on their Lumix DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1. The Panasonic models aren't a whole lot smaller than a compact D-SLR, but that's not the case with the E-P1: it's not much bigger than say, the Canon PowerShot G10. The two main reasons for the difference in size are the EP-1's much smaller grip and lack of a viewfinder.
Other features on the E-P1 include a 12.3 Megapixel Live MOS sensor, sensor-shift image stabilization, live view on a 3-inch LCD, full manual controls, art filters (gotta have those), a digital level gauge, and a 720p movie mode. It uses a brand new image processor (which improves color rendition, fine detail, and noise suppression) and its metering system has been greatly improved (it's now 324-zone), as well.
The E-P1 will initially be available with two lenses, which Olympus is branding as "M. Zuiko". There's an F2.8, 17 mm "pancake" lens, plus a more traditional F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm zoom lens. The 14 - 42 is rather unique in that it can "collapse", to reduce its size when not in use.
Is this the portable interchangeable lens camera that everyone's been waiting for? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The E-P1 will be available in three kits: body only ($750), the body plus the 14 - 42 mm lens ($800), and the body plus the 17 mm pancake lens and its optical viewfinder ($900). The camera will come in two colors (brushed metal and matte white), and the lenses come in two colors (silver and black), as well. Here's what you'll find in the box for each of those kits:
- The 12.3 effective Megapixel Olympus E-P1 camera body
- F2.8, 17 mm M. Zuiko lens [17 mm kit only]
- F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm M. Zuiko lens [14-42 kit only]
- BLS-1 lithium-ion battery
- Battery charger
- Optical viewfinder [17 mm kit only]
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- USB cable
- A/V cable
- CD-ROM featuring Olympus Master software
- 158 page camera manual (printed)
E-P1 in white with its 17mm lens and optical viewfinder
Image courtesy of Olympus
As I mentioned, there are two new Micro Four Thirds lenses being launched with the E-P1. The 17 mm pancake lens looks fantastic on the body, and I have no complaints about the photos I took with it. The pancake lens also comes with an optical viewfinder that attaches to the camera's hot shoe. Do note that there's no focus synchronization on it -- it's like a rangefinder. The 14 - 42 mm kit lens isn't as good as the "regular" Olympus kit lens with the same focal range (probably because it collapses). The main complaint I have with that lens is corner softness. I'll have more on image quality later in the review.
The E-P1 also works with the four other Micro Four Thirds lenses on the market, all of which are made by Panasonic. They include:
- F4.0, 7 - 14 mm Lumix G Vario
- F4.0-5.8, 14 - 140 mm Lumix G Vario HD IS
- F3.5-5.6, 14 - 45 mm Lumix G Vario IS
- F4.0-5.6, 45 - 200 mm Lumix G Vario IS
Do note that you'll need to turn off the image stabilizers on those lenses, as the E-P1 already has that built-in!
E-P1 shown with OM and Four Thirds lens adapters
Image courtesy of Olympus
The E-P1 also works with "legacy" Four Thirds lenses, via the optional MMF-1 adapter. Some older Four Thirds lenses may not support autofocus, though. But wait -- there's more. You can also use classic Olympus OM lenses via another optional adapter (MF-2), and all of these lenses will be manual focus only. If that's still not enough, I don't see any reason why you can't use Panasonic's Leica R and M-mount adapters, as well.
Regardless of what lens you have attached to the E-P1, there will be a 2X focal length conversion ratio. Thus, a 50mm lens has a 100mm field-of-view.
Digital SLRs and now interchangeable lens cameras never include memory cards, so you'll need to pick one up right away. Much to my amazement, the E-P1 doesn't use xD memory cards (huge sigh of relief), instead opting for the much more common (not to mention faster) SD and SDHC format. I'd recommend picking up a 4GB SDHC card, and perhaps a larger one if you'll be taking a lot of video clips. It's worth spending a little extra for a high speed card (Class 4 or higher). I did notice that my handy Eye-Fi wireless SD card did not work reliably with the E-P1, so consider yourself warned.
The E-P1 uses the same BLS-1 lithium-ion battery as several of Olympus's digital SLRs. This battery packs 8.3 Wh of energy into its plastic shell, which is pretty good for a camera this size. Here's how that translates into battery life -- live view only, of course:
It's hard to draw conclusions about how the E-P1's battery life compares to other interchangeable lens cameras, since most manufacturers don't publish live view battery life numbers. The E-P1's battery life is comparable to the two Panasonic Micro Four Thirds cameras on the market, and quite a bit better than the two D-SLRs for which I have numbers.
I should point out a few things about the proprietary batteries used by the E-P1 and every other camera on the above list. For one, they're pretty expensive -- you'll spend at least $42 for a spare battery. Also, should your rechargeable battery run out of juice, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery to get you through the day.
This may be pretty obvious, but Olympus won't be offering a battery grip for the E-P1.
When it's time to charge the BLS-1 battery, just pop it into the included charger. This is one of the slower chargers out there, taking 3.5 hours to power up the battery. This isn't one of those charges that plugs directly into the wall - you must use a power cable.
The silver E-P1 with the optional FL-14 flash
Image courtesy of Olympus
There are a decent number of accessories available for the E-P1. The two most notable include the optical viewfinder (which works only with the 17 mm lens) and the FL-14 external flash. Do note that 1) you can't use both of these at the same time (for obvious reasons) and 2) the FL-14 is awfully pricey for a relatively weak flash that can't bounce. That said, here are the most interesting of the E-P1's available accessories:
There may be some other accessories available outside of the U.S., such as retro-styled body jackets. One thing you won't find anywhere for the E-P1 is an AC adapter, as it doesn't support one.
Olympus Master 2 in Mac OS X
Olympus includes version 2 of their familiar Olympus Master software with the E-P1. Olympus Master is pretty snappy, the interface is simple, and it can do just about anything you can imagine.
After you've transferred photos over from the camera (either into albums or folders on your hard drive) you'll arrive at the usual thumbnail screen that is standard in all photo viewing software these days. The thumbnail sizes are adjustable, and you can see shooting data and a histogram on the right side of the thumbnails. There's even a built-in RSS reader for subscribing to Olympus-related news feeds (or the DCRP feed, if you're so inclined).
From this screen you can organize photos, e-mail or print them, or display them in a slideshow. If you have a sequence of photos that you want to stitch into a panorama, you can do that with a few clicks of your mouse.
You can also use Olympus Master to update the firmware on the camera and any attached lens or flash, which is one of the nice benefits of the Micro (and regular) Four Thirds format.
Editing JPEGs in Olympus Master 2
Above you can see the edit window, which you access by either double-clicking on a thumbnail or by clicking the Edit button in the toolbar. Functions here include resizing, cropping, brightness/contrast/sharpness adjustments, redeye reduction, distortion correction, and much more. When you're performing one of these edits, the software does a side-by-side before and after comparison, so you can see exactly what changes you've made.
Editing RAW images in Olympus Master 2
Olympus Master also features a pretty comprehensive RAW editor. It lets you adjust exposure, white balance, picture mode (color, b&w, sepia), contrast, sharpness, saturation, gradation, the noise filter, and more. When you adjust any of the settings, Olympus Master shows you the results after a few seconds of grinding away. Do note that you don't get the before and after view like you do when you're editing JPEGs.
Edit screen in Olympus Studio 2
If you want more advanced RAW editing tools then you might want to consider buying Olympus Studio 2 ($100). This adds tone curve adjustment, false color suppression, aberration compensation, distortion correction, batch processing, and much more.
Another tool for editing RAW images is Adobe Photoshop. Well, not yet, as their Camera Raw plug-in didn't support the E-P1's RAW files when this review was written.
Oh, and if you have no idea what the heck RAW is, I'll tell you. Basically, it's a file containing unprocessed image data direct from the camera's sensor. You'll need to process it on your computer first (or on the camera -- more on this later), but this allows you to adjust things like white balance, exposure, and noise reduction without reducing the quality of the original image. It's almost like taking the photo again. Be warned that RAW images are considerably larger than JPEGs, which means that they take up more space on your memory card and decrease camera performance.
Olympus includes a detailed manual with the E-P1. It starts off with a "basics" section to get you up and running, and then delves into a lot more detail. The manual's not remotely user-friendly, with small type and lots of "notes" on each page, but more than likely you'll find the answer to whatever question you may have inside its pages. Documentation for the included software is installed directly onto your computer.
Look and Feel
Old and new; Image courtesy of Olympus
As I mentioned at the start of this article, the E-P1's design is inspired by the original Olympus "Pen" cameras, specifically the Pen-F shown above. Like the Pen-F, the EP-1 is compact, stylish, and built like a tank. It's one of the few cameras where I can safely say that it feels like it was carved from a solid block of metal, even if it has a fair amount of plastic inside it. The body doesn't have much of a grip, but that didn't bother me; in fact, the lack of a grip makes the camera very easy to operate with just one hand.
Nearly all of the camera's controls can be found on the back of the camera, to the right of its LCD. The E-P1 has a four-way controller with a scroll wheel around it, plus a unique vertically oriented main dial. You'll use both of these dials for menu navigation, adjusting manual settings, and more. I found the four-way controller to be too small, and the wheel around it way too easy to accidentally turn. The mode dial on the E-P1 is set into the top of the body, and you access it with a plastic dial that sticks out of the back. I found that dial to be a bit small for my large fingers.
How about some comparison shots? Here's how the E-P1 looks next to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1, another Micro Four Thirds camera:
I think a lot of people will agree with this sentiment: the E-P1 is the camera we were waiting for when the Micro Four Thirds system was first announced -- at least in terms of size.
Another comparison I thought was interesting was the E-P1 versus the Canon PowerShot G10, which is a fixed-lens prosumer camera. While I didn't have a G10 to photograph, I did come up with this comparison of their sizes and weights:
Well isn't that interesting... if you compare the body size only, the E-P1 is both smaller and lighter than the PowerShot G10! With the 17 mm lens, it's still smaller, though the size advantage vanishes if you use the 14-42. Of course, the G10 can't swap lenses, so the slight increase in size may be worth it!
By the way, about those open and closed positions for the 14 - 42 mm lens. It has a closed position for traveling around, and an open position for when you actually want to take photos. If you're not in the open position when the camera is turned on, it will let you know. There are comparison photos of the lens in each position later in this article.
Alright, now let's see how the E-P1 compares against other interchangeable lens cameras (that includes D-SLRs) in terms of size and weight. As before, I'm only listing cameras with live view support.
No big surprises here -- the E-P1 is the smallest and lightest camera in the group! It's not quite small enough to fit into your jeans pocket, but it travels easily in a small bag or purse.
Alright, let's start our tour of the camera now!
Here you can see the front of the E-P1 with the lens removed. The camera uses the same Micro Four Thirds lens mount as the Panasonic DMC-G1/GH1 twins, with a 2X focal length conversion ratio. I listed the available lens and adapter options earlier in this article.
Inside the lens mount is the E-P1's 12.3 effective Megapixel Live MOS sensor. Unlike Panasonic's two Micro Four Thirds camera, the P1 has sensor-shift image stabilization built in, so every lens you attach will have shake reduction. The IS system detects the tiny movements of your hands that can blur your photos, and it shifts the sensor to compensate for it. Olympus says you'll get up to four stops worth of shake reduction on the E-P1. Keep in mind that IS cannot freeze a moving subject, nor will it permit multi-second handheld photos -- but it's way better than nothing at all! Here's an example of the IS system in action, with the 14 - 42 mm kit lens:
Image stabilization off
Image stabilization on
Both of the photos you see above were taken at a shutter speed of 1/10 second. As you can see, the photo with IS turned on is noticeably sharper. That blurriness at the bottom is a depth-of-field issue, unrelated to camera shake. One other thing to note: you cannot use image stabilization in movie mode, though an electronic version is available.
Interchangeable lens cameras really benefit from dust reduction systems (especially when there's no mirror to protect the sensor), and the E-P1 uses a more compact version of the Supersonic Wave Filter that Olympus pioneered several years ago. When the camera is turned on, ultrasonic waves are sent through the low-pass filter, which literally shakes dust off the sensor. Since the sensor doesn't have a mirror to protect it, this feature is more important than ever.
By now you probably notice that that E-P1 doesn't have a built-in flash. So, unless you take photos strictly outdoors, you're going to have to pony up for one of the flashes I listed earlier. The camera also lacks an AF-assist lamp (that's a self-timer lamp at the top-right of the photo), and I'm not sure if you can use the one on an external flash at this point (I assume so).
The first thing to see on the back of the E-P1 is its large 3-inch LCD display. One thing that disappointed me was that Olympus skimped on the resolution here -- this is the same 230,000 pixel display that you could find on any $300 compact camera. For the price of the E-P1, a 460,000 or 920,000 pixel screen would've been more appropriate, in my opinion. While not the best I've seen, the LCD is fairly easy-to-see outdoors.
As you've probably figured out by now, the E-P1 is a live view only camera. The live view experience is better than on most digital SLRs, but not as good as I've seen. The camera uses the Live MOS sensor to focus (using contrast detection), and it's faster than on Olympus' D-SLRs, but the Panasonic G-series twins and the Sony A3xx series are all noticeably faster. The EP-1 features face detection, a live histogram, and your choice of composition grids. You can also enlarge the frame when in manual focus mode, which allows you to make precise adjustments to the focus distance. In low light, the screen brightens automatically, and you can enhance that effect even more by turning on Live View Boost.
Perfect Shot Preview for white balance
The E-P1 inherits the Perfect Shot Preview feature that's been on Olympus cameras for a year or two now. This allows you to see the effects of different exposure compensation or white balance settings in real time. The views are kind of small, but I still think it's a handy feature to have.
The levels turn green when you hit the magic spot
Another neat feature on the E-P1 is an electronic level, which was inherited from the Olympus E-30. If you're like me and can't take a level shot to save your life, then you'll love this option. The level works both horizontally and for pitch (forward/backward), as well.
As you can see, the E-P1 lacks a viewfinder of any kind. However, Olympus will be offering at least one as an accessory (the VF-1) -- which is meant to be used with the 17 mm pancake lens. The viewfinder clips onto the hot shoe, which means that you cannot use it and an external flash at the same time.
At the top-left of the photo is the plastic dial that's used to operate the mode dial, which you'll have a better view of in a moment. Over on the right side of the LCD is where you'll find the rest of the E-P1's controls. Let's start with the four buttons to the immediate right of the screen:
- AE/AF lock
- Delete photo
The next two buttons are Function and Info. The function button is customizable, and by default turns on face detection, multi-point AF, and shadow adjustment (you may want to disable this one, since it can affect photo quality and camera performance). Other options for this button include DOF preview, custom white balance, home AF position, manual focus, RAW on/off, test picture, My Mode, LCD on/off, or nothing at all. The info button moves through the various displays on the LCD.
In between the Function and Info buttons is the small four-way controller, which has a scroll wheel surrounding it. The four-way controller is used for menu navigation, reviewing photos, and also:
- Up - ISO (Auto, 100 - 6400)
- Down - Drive (Single-shot, sequential, 2 or 12 sec self-timer)
- Left - AF (Single AF, continuous AF, manual focus, single AF + manual) - this button is customizable
- Right - White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, cloudy, tungsten, white fluorescent, neutral white fluorescent, daylight fluorescent, flash, one-touch, color temperature)
- Center - Live control menu + OK
As you can see, the E-P1 has a pretty expansive ISO range, going all the way up to ISO 6400. You can set how high it goes in Auto mode in the menu system.
Now let's talk about the E-P1's continuous shooting performance. Olympus says that the camera can shoot as fast as 3 fraesm/second -- here's how things turned out in the real world:
While it's burst rate isn't the fastest out there, the E-P1 has a decent amount of buffer memory, so you can take quite a few photos in a sequence. Once the buffer fills up, the camera keeps shooting, just at a slower rate. The image on the LCD has just a brief blackout between each shot, so you should be able to track a moving subject.
There are plenty of white balance to choose from on the camera. You've got the usual presets, plus you can use a white or gray card as a reference, for accurate color in mixed or unusual lighting. You can also set the white balance by color temperature, with a range of 2000K - 14000K. If that's still not enough, you can fine-tune the WB (in the amber-blue and/or green-magenta directions) and you can bracket for it, as well.
Frame enlargement in manual focus
What are those AF modes all about? Single AF locks the focus when you halfway-press the shutter release button. Continuous AF keeps focusing, even when the shutter is halfway-pressed, which comes in handy if you're shooting a moving subject. Manual focus allows you to set the focus distance yourself, though that can be difficult, since there are no distance markings on the lens, nor are any displayed on the LCD. As you'd expect, the camera enlarges the frame so you can verify proper focus, and you can move around when you're zoomed in by using the four-way controller.
Live Control Menu
Pressing the center button in the four-way controller opens up the E-P1's new Live Control Menu. This allows you to get at the camera's most commonly used settings without having to enter the regular menu system. You use the scroll wheel to go up and down (though I think the direction of movement is backwards) and the silver thumb dial to go left and right. By the way, you can use the four-way controller for all of this. Functions that can be set in the Live Control Menu include:
- Scene mode
- Art filter mode
- Movie AE mode
- White balance
- Image stabilizer
- Aspect ratio
- Record mode
- ISO sensitivity
- Flash mode
- Metering mode
- AF mode
- Face detection
- AF target selection
- Movie sound record
I'll give you more details about many of those options later on.
The Super Control Panel is alive and well
By the way, fans of the Super Control Panel need not worry -- it's still here. To get to it, press the OK button to show the Live Control Menu, then hit Info, and viola -- the Super Control Panel appears. You can adjust settings here in the same way that you can on Olympus' D-SLRs.
I've touched on it already, but the last thing to see on the back of the E-P1 is that silver thumb wheel. It's used to navigate through the regular and Live Control menus, and it also lets you operate the playback zoom feature.
First up on the top of the E-P1 is its mode dial, which is actually recessed into the body a little bit (which is why you turn it with that black plastic dial below it). Here are the eight options available on the mode dial:
The E-P1 has a pretty typical set of mode dial options. If you want a point-and-shoot experience, just set the dial to the iAuto position. The camera will take care of everything for you, including picking a scene mode (selecting from portrait, landscape, night scene, sport, or macro). It's worth pointing out that the camera uses a base ISO of 200 in this mode, or anytime Auto ISO is being used.
One of the scene modes on the E-P1
If you want to pick a scene mode yourself, you'll find plenty to choose from in the SCN menu. Two of the notable scene modes include e-Portrait and panorama. The e-Portrait feature is a new one, and similar to the "beauty" mode on some other Olympus models. In a nutshell, e-Portrait removes wrinkles and other skin blemishes from your subject, right the photo is taken. The camera actually saves two images -- one retouched, the other untouched. You can also apply this feature in playback mode, if you want. The panorama feature helps you line up photos side-by-side, for later stitching into a single image. Since the EP-1 doesn't use xD cards, there's none of that "you must use an Olympus-branded card to use this feature" stuff, either.
Art Filter menu
The E-P1 also features Olympus' much-hyped art filters, which debuted on the E-30. You can select from pop art, soft focus, pale & light color, light tone, grainy film (my personal favorite), and pin hole. If you're shooting in RAW+JPEG mode, the filter is applied to the JPEG, but not the RAW. In playback mode, you now have the ability to apply art filters to RAW images that you've already taken. There are a couple of images in the gallery taken using the Art Filters for you to see.
Naturally, the E-P1 has the full suite of manual exposure controls. There's also a bulb mode, which keeps the shutter open for as long as you'd like (though I think it will stop after 30 minutes). Since there's no remote shutter release available for the camera, you'll want to use the bulb timer for longer exposures.
Getting back to the tour, let's talk about the E-P1's hot shoe. Here you'll attach an external flash (which you'll probably be doing frequently) or the optional optical viewfinder. The E-P1 works best with recent Olympus flashes (including its own matching flash, the FL-14), which will sync with the cameras TTL metering system. The FL-36R and FL-50R can also take advantage of the "Super FP" function, which lets you use them at any shutter speed. Otherwise, the fastest shutter speed you can use is 1/180 sec. You can use third party external flashes with the E-P1, though you'll probably need to adjust their settings manually.
Continuing to the right. we find the indicator for the Supersonic Wave Filter (dust reduction system), and the power, shutter release, and exposure compensation buttons. The exposure compensation range is -3EV to +3EV, in 1/3EV increments.
There's nothing to see on this side of the camera. In this photo, the 14 - 42 mm lens is in its "travel" position. Let's open up this bad boy now:
And here's the lens at the wide-angle position. As you can see, it nearly doubles in size when you open it up.
On the other side of the camera you'll find its two I/O ports. The top one is for both USB and A/V out, while the one on the bottom is a mini HDMI port (cable not included). A plastic door of average quality protects these two ports.
The 14 - 42 mm lens is at the telephoto position in this shot.
On the bottom of the E-P1 you'll find an off-center, metal tripod mount, plus the battery and memory card compartment. The plastic door over the memory card slot is of average quality and, as you can see, you won't be able to access the card when the camera is on a tripod.
The included BLS-1 battery can be seen on the right side of the photo.
Using the Olympus E-P1
It takes the E-P1 about 1.3 seconds to run through its dust reduction cycle and prepare for shooting. That's on the slow side for an interchangeable lens camera (which includes digital SLRs).
In case you missed it, there's a live histogram displayed on the LCD
Autofocus performance is by far the E-P1's weak spot. Unless you'll be using manual focus, you can forget about using the E-P1 for any kind of action shooting. That's because focus times start at just under one second (wide-angle and telephoto speeds didn't vary by much). If the camera has a more challenging subject to deal with, focus time can be two or three seconds long. For shooting still life and landscapes, I didn't mind. But when I was trying to capture my 18 month-old niece "in action", the AF system was so slow that I usually got poor results. In low light the camera has a lot trouble as well, as it has no AF-assist lamp to illuminate your subject. Olympus doesn't say whether the E-P1 can use the AF illuminator on the FL-36R and FL-50R flashes, but I would imagine so.
Something else focusing-related that I hadn't even thought of was discovered by the always astute Digital Photography Review. They pointed out that the E-P1 does a full re-focus on every shot, which makes the camera feel even slower in everyday use. The author does note that you can reassign focusing to the AE/AF Lock button, which can speed things up if your subject isn't going anywhere.
One thing that wasn't an issue was shutter lag -- I certainly didn't notice any. Shot-to-shot delays were also brief, regardless of the image quality setting.
There is no quick way to delete a photo immediately after it is taken -- you'll have to enter playback mode for that. To save you a button press, you can set Auto Review to "Auto Playback" and the camera will go there after a picture is taken.
|Paragraph above updated 8/10/09|
Now, here are the various image size and quality options on the E-P1:
Whew! That's a long list... and that's only at the default 4:3 aspect ratio, too! You can take a RAW image alone, or with a JPEG at the size of your choosing.
The E-P1 has a regular menu, in addition to the Live Control and Super Control Panel features that I showed you earlier. The main menu is the same as on Olympus' digital SLRs. It's divided up into several tabs, covering shooting, playback, custom, and setup options. Two things to note: the custom menu isn't shown by default (you have to turn it on), and many of these menu options will be unavailable in the auto and scene modes. I also found some commonly used options to be buried way too deep in the custom settings, though many of them are available in the Live Control menu. And with that, here's the full list of menu options:
|Shooting Menu 1
|Shooting menu 2
While I covered most of the menu options up there, I want to describe a few in some more detail for you.
|Picture Mode menu||Editing the custom picture mode|
Picture Modes contain sets of color, sharpness, and exposure settings. The preset Picture Modes are fairly obvious: vivid, natural, or muted colors, plus portrait for smooth skin tones. For each of those, you can tweak the contrast, sharpness, and saturation. For black and white shooting, there's a monotone mode. There you can apply virtual color filters, or add a color tint to the image. Finally, a custom option lets you select a Picture Mode as a starting point, and you can then adjust the settings I just mentioned, plus gradation.
The gradation feature takes advantage of Olympus' Shadow Adjustment Technology. The normal option is your standard automatic contrast feature. Auto gradation breaks the image down into smaller segments, and adjusts the contrast for each of those areas. This should result in more shadow detail. You can also use the high and low key options for subjects that are mostly highlighted and shadowed, respectively. You can see an example of this feature in action in my E-620 review.
There are three different image stabilizer modes to choose from on the E-P1. Mode 1 is for everyday shooting. Mode 2 is for horizontal panning, while mode 3 is for vertical panning. You can also turn the IS system off entirely, which is a good idea if you have the camera on a tripod.
The E-P1 has the same multiple exposure feature as the E-620. This lets you take two exposure and combine them into a single image. You can also overlay new images onto an existing one. You can leave the brightness of each image untouched, or you can turn on the "auto gain" feature to make things blend in better. In playback mode, you can use the image overlay feature to combine up to four RAW photos that you've already taken into one, in much the same way.
There are a whopping four types of bracketing on the E-P1. You can bracket for exposure, flash exposure, white balance, and even ISO sensitivity. For each of those, the camera produces anywhere from three to six photos, each with a different exposure/WB setting/ISO. White balance can be bracketing in both the amber/blue and green/magenta directions.
Alright, enough about photos -- let's do the photo tests now!
The E-P1 did a great job with our standard macro test subject. Colors are vibrant, the subject is sharp, and I don't see anything resembling noise. The only thing I want to mention is that I had to overexpose the photo more than I do with a typical camera that I'm reviewing.
The minimum distance to your subject will depend on what lens you have attached to the camera. For the two Olympus lenses (17 and 14 - 42) the minimum distances are 20 and 25 cm, respectively. If you want a dedicated macro lens, you'll have to use a classic Four Thirds with the adapter, at least for now.
Normally I reach for my "classic" F3.5-4.5 40 - 150 mm Zuiko lens when I test a Four Thirds camera, but since it doesn't support autofocus on the E-P1, I used the newer F4.0-5.6, 40 - 150 mm model that does. Much to my surprise, the new lens performed nearly as well as the old (higher grade) one. The buildings are sharp from one edge of the frame to the other. With full manual controls at your disposal, bringing in enough light was a piece of cake. Noise levels are very low, as you'd expect, and purple fringing was minimal. About the only thing to complain about is the noticeable highlight clipping, which I'll touch on again in a minute.
Now, let's use that same night scene to see how the E-P1 performs at higher sensitivities:
There's a tiny increase in noise when you go from ISO 100 to 200. Noise becomes more noticeable at ISO 400, though it won't keep you from making a large print. You start losing detail at ISO 800, reducing print sizes slightly, so now's a good time to start thinking about shooting RAW. That trend continues at ISO 1600, so this is probably as high as I'd take the E-P1 in low light conditions (unless you're post-processing). You can see that the edges of the buildings have vanished at ISO 3200, and you don't want to even bother with ISO 6400.
You can shoot RAW and post-process to get better results out of the E-P1, at least up to a point. I took the RAW versions of the ISO 1600 and 3200 images above, converted them with Olympus Studio, and then did some clean-up work in Photoshop. See for yourself:
This is a great time to point out that if you don't turn off the Noise Filter in Olympus Master or Studio, the image you've converted from a RAW file will look just like the JPEG, which may not be desirable. With the noise filter off, you get a lot more noise, but it also gives you more detail to work with. You can clearly see an improvement in the ISO 1600 image, though once you get to ISO 3200 the change isn't quite as dramatic.
I'll have the studio ISO test for you in a moment.
Yes, I know that the E-P1 doesn't have a built-in flash, but since I figure a lot of people will be buying the FL-14 that I should do the redeye test anyway. Unfortunately, redeye was a problem here, as the flash isn't that far from the lens (the larger external flashes shouldn't have this issue). There is a redeye removal tool in playback mode, so let's see if it helped:
Well, it fixed one eye. Your results may vary!
|17 mm lens||14 - 42 mm lens|
There's minimal barrel distortion on the F2.8, 17 mm pancake lens and mild-to-moderate distortion at the wide end of the 14 - 42 mm zoom. The camera actually corrects for barrel distortion automatically, though not for RAW images (but the included software can remove it), so things are actually worse in reality than you see here. While I didn't see much in the line of corner blurriness with the pancake lens, it's definitely there on the 14 - 42 mm zoom. You didn't expect a collapsible zoom lens to have perfect sharpness across the frame, did you? Vignetting (dark corners) wasn't a problem with either lens.
Now it's time for our studio ISO test. Since the lighting is always the same, you can compare these images between those from other cameras. While viewing the small images is a quick way to compare the noise levels at each sensitivity, opening up the full size image is always a good idea.
The first three crops are very clean, as one would expect on a D-SLR or interchangeable lens camera. The image gets noticeably softer at ISO 800, though noise is kept in check. While noise is easily visible at ISO 1600, there's not enough to keep you from making a large print at this setting. Noise doesn't really become an issue until ISO 3200, which is an improvement over the Olympus D-SLRs that I've tested recently. At this point you'll be making small prints, though you can salvage things by shooting RAW, as you'll see below. ISO 6400 is probably worth skipping, as there's quite a bit of detail loss as well as a drop in color saturation.
Speaking of RAW, here's another example showing the benefit of using the format:
JPEG, straight out of the camera
RAW -> JPEG conversion (Olympus Studio)
RAW -> JPEG conversion + NeatImage + Unsharp Mask
The benefit of using RAW and post-processing is pretty obvious at ISO 3200, and is well worth doing if you're shooting at higher ISOs. You can also play around with the noise filter option on the camera to reduce the amount of detail lost.
Overall I was very pleased with the E-P1's image quality. Exposure was generally accurate, though the E-P1 has considerable highlight clipping for a camera with a relatively large sensor. Colors were pleasing, and subjects were sharp by interchangeable lens camera standards. The one exception is in the corners on the 14 - 42 mm kit lens, which can be blurry at times. As the tests above illustrated, noise levels are low through ISO 800 in low light, and ISO 1600 in good light (which is better than on previous Olympus cameras). Purple fringing levels were fairly low.
Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, print a few of them if you're interested, and then decide if the E-P1's photo quality meets your expectations!
One of the biggest features on the E-P1 is its ability to record HD movies. That makes it the first Olympus interchangeable lens camera (which includes D-SLRs) to support video recording. The E-P1 can record video at 1280 x 720 at 30 frames/second (with stereo sound) until the file size reaches 2GB. That takes around 7 minutes at the HD resolution, since the Motion JPEG codec used here isn't terribly efficient. For longer movies, you can lower the resolution to 640 x 480, which allows for continuous video recording for up to 14 minutes. Olympus recommends a Class 6 or higher SD/SDHC card for recording movies.
The E-P1 has the ability to focus continuously while recording a movie. The problem is, the noise from that slow contract detect AF system will be picked up by the microphone. I could even hear it with music blaring in the background. The optical image stabilizer is not available in movie mode, though an electronic version tries to substitute for it.
The camera doesn't give you much in the line of manual controls in movie mode, though you can adjust the aperture manually by adjusting the Movie AE mode option. You can also apply any of the six art filters to a movie, though some of them significantly reduce the video's frame rate.
The Movie+Still image will save a full resolution still image of the last frame of your movie, automatically. There's no way to take a still image in the middle of video recording.
Ready for a sample movie? The video below was taken at the 720p resolution, but has been compressed for easier web viewing (be sure to click the expand icon at the top right for HD viewing). If you want to view the original movie, click the link underneath the video. Be warned -- it's a BIG download.
Download original video file (85MB, AVI format)
While the playback options may look a lot like those on Olympus' digital SLRs, there have been some changes under the hood. Basic features include slideshows, DPOF print marking, image rotation, image protection, voice captions, and zoom & scroll (playback zoom). The slideshow feature has been greatly enhanced -- it now has background music (by some well-known Japanese musician) and transitions.
Photos can be viewing one-at-a-time or as thumbnails of varying sizes (some of which are tiny). You can also navigate to photos that were taken on a certain date by using the calendar view (pictured).
|JPEG edit menu||Shadow adjustment technology in action|
The camera offers two edit modes -- one for JPEGs, another for RAW images. The JPEG editing feature lets you downsize an image, apply shadow adjustment technology (see above right), remove redeye, crop a photo, change the aspect ratio, apply the e-Portrait filter, or convert it to black and white or sepia. The RAW data edit feature is handy, but not as easy to use as it could be. Instead of just adjusting the RAW properties right there in playback mode, you first need to set the desired settings in the record menu, and then return to playback mode to use the RAW edit function. The resulting image is saved as a JPEG. This is how you can apply art filters to RAW images that you've already taken.
Something else you can do in playback mode is overlay RAW images. You can select between from 2 to 4 images and then combine them into one photo. You can adjust the gain for each of the photos.
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but press the info button a few times and you'll get a lot more, including histograms and a display of over and underexposed areas.
The E-P1 between photos without delay in playback mode.
How Does it Compare?
Olympus has never been one to shy away from trying something new. In 2006, they introduced the first digital SLR with live view support: the E-330. Back then I wrote that it was a great first effort, though there were important tradeoffs to consider. That couldn't be more true here in 2009 with the Micro Four Thirds based E-P1. It does so many things very well: it takes great pictures, has plenty of features for both the point-and-shoot and enthusiast crowds, and can record HD movies. And let's not forget the incredible retro styling. The trade-offs are many: the autofocus is painfully slow, there's no viewfinder or flash (and those accessories have their own issues), and highlight clipping is a problem -- just to name a few things. The E-P1's biggest issue is the first one I mentioned: the AF performance. If you're taking photos of things that aren't moving (or aren't moving very fast), then you should be able to deal with it. But if you're shooting sports or trying to capture an active toddler in action, forget about it. Repeating what I said three years ago: if you can live with the E-P1's tradeoffs, then it's absolutely worth a look. If capturing fast action is important to you, you'll want to check out something else instead.
Undoubtedly, the thing that has caused the E-P1 to turn so many heads is its design. Based on the old film-based "Pen", the E-P1 has a retro look, complete with a metal outer shell, faux leather grip, and (of course) interchangeable lenses. The camera is well built and easy to operate with just one hand, though some of the controls are on the small side. While it's not going to fit into your jeans pockets, it's small enough to travel in a purse or small camera bag. The camera is available in brushed metal and matte white, and the lenses are available in silver and black.
The E-P1 uses the same Micro Four Thirds standard as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and GH1. That means that there's no mirror box, allowing for more compact bodies and lenses. Olympus has two lenses that support the MFT standard: an F2.8, 17 mm pancake, and an F3.5-5.6, 14 - 42 mm lens that can "collapse" when not in use. The first lens seemed pretty good from my experiences, while the zoom has some issues with corner blurriness. You can also use Panasonic's MFT lenses, and most classic Four Thirds lenses will work just fine if you have the appropriate adapter. Since the camera has built-in image stabilization, every lens you attach will have shake reduction. On the back of the camera is a large 3-inch LCD display with 230,000 pixels (yeah, a sharper screen would've been nice). Outdoor visibility was decent, and the screen brightens automatically in low light, especially with "live view boost" turned on.
Speaking of live view, that's how you'll be composing photos on the E-P1, as it has no built-in viewfinder. You'll see a bright, fluid image on the LCD, with all kinds of useful tools, including a live histogram, the ability to enlarge the frame, a digital "level", and a handy Perfect Shot Preview feature, which allows you to see the effects of various white balance and exposure compensation settings. Olympus does offer an optical viewfinder, which is mated to the 17 mm pancake lens. Want a viewfinder for the 14 - 42 mm lens? You're out of luck, at least for now. The viewfinder attaches to the E-P1's hot shoe, which normally isn't a big deal, but since the camera doesn't have a built-in flash, it's a problem. I figure that most people will give up their viewfinder briefly to use the flash, but having a flash built into the camera would've made life a lot easier. The external flash that Olympus has designed to go along with the E-P1 is pricey, not terribly powerful, unable to bounce, and seems to bring out the "red" in people's eyes. Two other things missing from the E-P1 are support for an AC adapter and remote camera control (Olympus' digital SLRs all have that feature).
The E-P1 has a nice combination of features, that'll make beginners and enthusiasts happy. Those of you seeking a point-and-shoot experience can just put the camera into iAuto mode and let the E-P1 do the rest of the work. That means it'll pick a scene mode for you, find any faces, and boost the ISO as high as it needs to in order to ensure a sharp photo. Naturally, there's a dedicated scene mode position on the mode dial, where you can select from a ton of different shooting situations. If you want more controls, you'll find the usual P/A/S/M modes, with shutter speeds ranging from 60 to 1/4000 sec. In addition, there's a bulb mode, allowing for ultra-long exposures. The E-P1 has numerous other manual controls, including white balance fine-tuning, four types of bracketing, and more custom functions than I can count. Regardless of your skill level, you'll have fun with the camera's art filters and movie mode. The movie mode can record video at 1280 x 720 (30 fps) with sound for up to 7 minutes. While the camera supports continuous autofocus during recording, it's slow and noisy. The image stabilizer is disabled during movie recording, unfortunately. The camera's playback mode has a fancy slideshow feature and handy JPEG and RAW editing tools.
Camera performance is very much a mixed bag. The E-P1 takes about 1.3 seconds to start up (due mostly to the dust reduction system), which is on the slow side for cameras with interchangeable lenses. Autofocus performance is the E-P1's achilles heel: it ranges from bad to worse. In the best case scenarios, the camera will lock focus in about a second. Some times it takes two or three seconds. Other times (most notably in low light situations) it just gives up entirely. These delays make the E-P1 a poor choice for photographing moving subjects. On a more positive note, shutter lag isn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays are minimal. While the camera won't win any awards for its continuous shooting rate, it does have a sizable amount of buffer memory, allowing you to take quite a few photos in a row before things start to slow down. It's hard to compare battery life with other interchangeable lens cameras, since they usually don't have live view only numbers available. You can take 300 shots per charge, which is good for a full-time live view camera, though picking up a spare battery may not be a bad idea.
I was very pleased with the photo quality on the E-P1. In fact, the only issues I could find were the camera's tendency to clip highlights and some corner blurriness with the 14 - 42 mm lens. Otherwise, the news is good. Exposure was accurate, colors looked good to my eyes, and sharpness was just how I like it -- not too sharp, not too soft. Olympus has done a nice job with the high ISO performance of the E-P1. You can safely use ISO 800 in low light and ISO 1600 in good light, and you can take things a little higher if you shoot RAW and do a little post-processing. If you're using the FL-14 flash (which is designed to go along with the E-P1), you can expect some redeye, though there is a removal tool in playback mode. I did not find purple fringing to be a problem.
I have two final things I want to bring up before wrapping things. First, it's worth noting that there aren't many Micro Four Thirds on the market right now. Olympus has two, and Panasonic has four, though I expect that to change over the next year. You can, of course, use classic Four Thirds lenses with the MMF-1 adapter. The other issue is that you can't access the memory card while the camera is on a tripod. Some folks may also be bothered by the fact that the tripod mount is not inline with the lens.
Here's the easiest way for me to summarize my thoughts on the Olympus E-P1: If you're taking action shots, consider something else. If you're not, then it's absolutely worth a look. The combination of size, style, photo quality, and features is hard to beat. Just like with the pioneering E-330 three years ago, if you can live with the E-P1's tradeoffs then you'll find that it's a fun and capable interchangeable lens camera.
What I liked:
- Very good photo quality; better high ISO performance than previous Olympus D-SLRs
- Compact, retro-styled, well-built body; both body and lenses available in two colors
- Sensor-shift image stabilization
- 3-inch LCD with decent outdoor and low light visibility
- Live view with face detection, frame enlargement, horizontal and pitch levels, and the handy Perfect Shot Preview feature
- Dust reduction system
- Full manual controls, with four types of bracketing
- RAW image format supported, with good editor included
- Decent amount of buffer memory allows for long continuous shooting sequences
- Fun art filter and multiple exposure options
- Records movies at 720p with sound and continuous AF (though see issues below)
- Support for classic Four Thirds, OM, and Leica lenses via optional adapters
- Well-equipped playback mode
- HDMI port
What I didn't care for:
- Very slow autofocus performance makes action shots nearly impossible
- Clips highlights more than I'd like
- No onboard flash; optional FL-14 flash is pricey, not terribly powerful, doesn't bounce and causes redeye
- No built-in viewfinder; optional viewfinder only works with 17 mm pancake lens and takes up the hot shoe, so you can't use a flash at the same time
- Some corner blurring with 14 - 42 mm lens
- Movie mode issues: limited recording time, no IS available, noisy continuous AF
- Can't access memory card while camera is on a tripod
- Higher resolution LCD would've been nice
- No AC adapter available
- Doesn't support remote control from a computer, unlike Olympus D-SLRs
The only other Micro Four Thirds available right now are the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 and DMC-GH1. Other compact D-SLRs worth considering include the Canon EOS Rebel T1i, Nikon D5000, Olympus E-450, Pentax K-7, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A380.
As always, I recommend a trip down to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Olympus E-P1 and its competitors before you buy!
See how the photo quality turned out in our extensive photo gallery!